France have arrived in the danger zone. A team that were treated dismissively by Eddie Jones at the start of the Six Nations, were sublime and sloppy against Italy and showed a depth of character in Cardiff missing from the side for a decade now have the title, and a grand slam, in sight. Expectation has replaced hope.
A young side have not had to wrestle with the demons of the past because, for the majority of the squad, they were in someone else’s nightmare. On Sunday Les Bleus are at Murrayfield, a ground where they have not won for six years, but there are only two survivors from the XV that went down to Greig Laidlaw’s boot two years ago, Virimi Vakatawa, who was on the wing that afternoon, and the recalled prop Jefferson Poirot, while Baptiste Serin is again on the bench.
France have so far played not so much without fear as with discipline. A team that spent most of the 2010s concocting various ways to lose, not least through poor decisions suggestive of a side that had just been thrown together, now have a sense of purpose under Fabien Galthié and his assistants, who include Shaun Edwards, a serial winner who enjoyed three grand slams with Wales and the 2013 title.
Four of the past eight grand slam winners have defeated Scotland at this stage, three at Murrayfield, including Wales last year. The home side started with two defeats and victory in Rome, and are set for another bottom-half finish, but they have the best defensive record in the competition and largely failed to defeat Ireland and England because of squandered opportunities.
“We hear the praise,” Galthié says. “Our goal is to win matches and titles, quickly, but the danger is there. We are well aware of it. We have a shared ambition and mission. There are promises, pleasure and dreams. Everyone is in this together. We are very much a collective.”
Galthié has dropped the wing Teddy Thomas, who scored two tries against Scotland two years ago but suffered defensive lapses in the first three rounds. He makes way for Damian Penaud who was injured in the buildup to the England match, a wing who established his reputation at a time when France were struggling.
Galthié is bidding to join a select band of five coaches, most of them French, who have won the grand slam as a player and as a head coach, but he would be the first to do so exclusively in the Six Nations era, having as a scrum-half been part of the France side that achieved the clean sweep in 2002 under Bernard Laporte.
“Of course we are targeting the grand slam,” says the wing Gaël Fickou, one of the more experienced players in the squad having made his international debut seven years ago. “It would be a lie to say otherwise. We know we have a match to play before we can think about Ireland in Paris on the final weekend and it will be one of the hardest we have this year.
“While we are not afraid to talk about the grand slam, we are aware of where we have come from and we remain humble. We have taken a very big step towards it, but we are not there yet. It will be a huge battle against the Scots who will want to bring us down. We are the hunted now, not the hunters, but it is harder hunting. A difference for us this year is that now we have the weapons to compete with other teams. In sport the wheel turns and we are starting to see the sun again.”
It has been turning slowly for Scotland who have finished in the top half of the Six Nations twice since 2006, and then no higher than third. Victories over France and England in 2018 suggested an improvement but their only two championship victories since then have been against Italy, although they drew at Twickenham last year.
After failing to qualify for the World Cup knockout stage and falling out with one of his best players, Finn Russell, Gregor Townsend needs a signal victory. The head coach is known for his attacking gameplans but tries have been scarce in Scotland’s matches this year. They have scored three, all against Italy, and conceded two, against Ireland and England, more impressive at forward than behind.
“France are a very exciting team who have some great players but they also have chinks in their armour we will look to expose,” says the prop Zander Fagerson. “It will certainly be a challenge but one we can definitely win.”